- Is It Time to Drop the F-Bomb on Russia? Why Putin is almost a Fascist
The word “fascist” gets casually bandied about. After falling into relative disuse, it has once again become a go-to term to dismiss a person or government as irredeemably intolerant and totalitarian, and few hurl the F-bomb as liberally as the Kremlin. Following Russia’s invasion into eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian nationalists called the democratic movement in Ukraine “fascist,” referencing the collaboration of Ukrainian independence leader Stepan Bandera with Nazi Germany. One of Russia’s most popular TV propagandists, Dmitry Kiselev, spent five minutes on air explaining how all 14 features of the Italian scholar Umberto Eco’s definition of fascism applied perfectly to Ukraine.
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Nonetheless, more and more analysts see this rhetoric as projection; it’s the Russian state—not the Ukrainian one—that’s fascist. Russia expert Vladislav Inozemtsev, for instance, has argued that with the establishment of state corporations, Russia “can no longer be accurately described as an ‘illiberal democracy,’ something on the order of what the Polish or Hungarian governments have become in recent months and now years. It is becoming a fascist state—a moderate one so far, perhaps, but fascist all the same.”
Alexander Motyl, a political science professor at Rutgers University, agrees, but for a different reason: “Fascism may be defined as a popular fully authoritarian political system with a personalistic dictator and a cult of the leader—a definition that makes sense conceptually as well as empirically, with respect to Putin’s Russia and related fascist systems.”
The ambiguity of the term complicates a precise application, but determining whether or not Vladimir Putin’s ruling ideology constitutes fascism is useful. Classifying the key characteristics of a regime allows one to more accurately predict its future actions. In particular, Russia’s belligerence and revanchism can be more clearly understood if interpreted through fascist categories.
The problem of defining fascism goes back to 1944, when George Orwell complained about the tendency to “recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction.” Recently Motyl cited at least 10 different definitions of the word. Yet scholars’ interpretations tend to cluster around a set of traits, which, taken together, create a coherent system. These academic definitions of fascism usually refer to a state that worships masculinity, commits acts of violence (supposedly on behalf of “the people”), has a charismatic and authoritarian leader, controls all political and economic structures, and mobilizes its citizenry with an ultranationalist ideology of national rebirth.
Until the recent resurgence of far-right movements in Europe, scholars had largely lost interest in fascism. The number of academic publications on the topic had declined sharply after the mid-1970s. Any attempt to affix this historical concept to a modern state should therefore be done cautiously. But Putin’s Russia meets the classical definition, except for one factor—the Kremlin can’t yet unite the Russian people around a clearly articulated nationalist ideology, though this isn’t for lack of trying on Putin’s part. The absence of a mobilizing philosophy constrains the aggressiveness of the Russian state, as without it, the Russian people will not accept fighting foreign battles indefinitely.
Similar social preconditions tend to induce similar political responses, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Putin emerged out of a set of circumstances analogous to those in Europe after World War I. In the early 20th century, fascist regimes began to take power in Europe as a response to the failures of liberal democratic governments. In his book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, Columbia history professor Mark Mazower explains how the roots of post-World War I dictatorships lie in parliamentary crises. In Italy, Benito Mussolini followed the disappointments of the liberal government of Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti, who was widely perceived as corrupt. In Germany, the Nazis benefited from the left- and right-wing uprisings that confronted the Weimar Republic, when it was unable to grapple with unemployment, declining wages, and imperial nostalgia.
In Foreign Affairs, Sheri Berman argues fascism tends to establish itself when people feel torn...